Restaurateur a citizen after 35 years

May 07, 2009|By MARLO BARNHART

HAGERSTOWN -- After 35 years of living and working in the United States, Masahiro "Massy" Hirai decided it was time to become an American citizen.

So, the owner of The House of Kobe, a popular Japanese restaurant on Dual Highway, raised his right hand April 10 in Baltimore and took the oath of citizenship.

"I heard the national anthem of the United States of America played and realized that now it is my national anthem," Hirai said.

Hirai said there were a number of reasons he delayed seeking permanent citizenship for so long, not the least of which was his efforts to start and build a successful restaurant business.


"I didn't tell my mom," Hirai said of his change of citizenship.

Once a year, he returns to the Kobe region of Japan, where his mother, now 90, and other family members live.

Hirai said his mother has become a little forgetful as she has gotten older.

"She still knows my face, and she doesn't care if it is Japanese or American," Hirai said.

During those annual visits, Hirai's Korean-born wife, Jun, and their three children -- all U.S. citizens -- would go through one gate at the airport when returning to America while Hirai, as a foreigner, had to go through another.

"I didn't like that," he said.

Hirai came to Washington, D.C., in 1974 to live with a sponsoring family. Hirai, who was born in 1946, was a college graduate, but didn't speak any English when he arrived.

While going to school to learn the language on a student visa, Hirai worked for a year on his sponsoring family's farm in Shepherdstown, W.Va.

Through his American family -- the Ikards -- Hirai got a green card so he could stay and work in America. Jayne Ikard still lives in Washington, D.C., and Hirai said he occasionally visits her.

While still in the D.C. area, Hirai started a catering business. He met and married his wife in 1980 and the couple began looking for a restaurant to buy -- first in Frederick, Md., then in Hagerstown.

Their first child was born in 1981 and often spent time in the kitchen of the original House of Kobe in the Dagmar Hotel on Summit Avenue.

A new restaurant at 757 Dual Highway was destroyed by an arsonist in 1997. It was rebuilt within a year on the same site.

"So many people called and sent money so we wouldn't leave Hagerstown," Hirai said.

The Hirais have three grown children and two grandchildren, and a third grandchild is expected soon. That was perhaps another reason for his citizenship decision.

"I made the application and waited for six months," Hirai said. "They checked everything, plus the citizenship test was hard ... I had to study."

Eager to show his new citizenship certificate to anyone who asks, Hirai smiles broadly when he speaks of his new chapter in his life.

"This town is my hometown now," Hirai said.

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